The Death of Paglia (the Cat)
I arrived home on Sunday after spending Thanksgiving in Virginia and Paglia was making this noise that sounded like the howl that usually precedes his coughing up a fur ball, but no fur ball was forth coming. I opened up a can of cat food and he ate some, but without the hardy ravenousness usually accompanying his consumption of freshly opened canned food. The appetite is reluctant, which is a little odd. He is rarely a finicky eater. He usually eats like a purring pig.
Monday, I work at home. He seems lethargic. I ate his favorites: liverwurst for lunch and chicken for dinner and while he watched me eat in his usual posture of anticipating the scrap toss, he had no interest in the morsels I give him. He was making the howl noise, but only intermittently. And, he had no interest in sleeping on the bed – instead, he rests under the bed or somewhere else on the floor or in the bath tub. While not unusual places for his relentless sleep, he prefers the bed; it’s where he naps most. Now the bed is the one resting place he avoids.
Monday night, the yowling finally erupted in an up-chucking, but instead of the traditional fur ball or some other type of feline vomit, fluid, almost as clear as water, erupted. And he yakked under the TV table. He almost always pukes in the general area between the desk and book shelves – that is his preferred upchuck spot. Not today. He also is visibly weaker.
Tuesday morning, no interest in eating whatsoever. He does not follow me into the kitchen. He is making another sound, a whimpering. We go right to the vet, waiting outside as they unlock the doors.
I had a Doctor Zimmerman, a youngish woman, very professional and competent. Paglia was not running a temperature, but he had a lost a pound since his last visit, only a few weeks ago.
I had to bring him to the vet in September. The guy had this in-grown toenail thing in his paw, nothing serious. The vet (an Asian doctor, also professional and competent) was amazed at Paglia’s age—15 or 16 —and said he looked 10 years old. Paglia was feisty too, like most cats he hated going to the vet. Paglia bit the doctor. A quick but unmistakable nip that left a red mark, pretty impressive for an elderly feline
About a year before this incident, Paglia had what turned out to be a Pine-Sol-induced fur loss. Suddenly, the fur on his hind quarters fell out. The vet gave him a battery of tests and could find nothing wrong. He had no idea what caused the fur loss, but declared Paglia a healthy cat. The next day Paglia’s fur started to grow back. Then I remembered he brushed against the mop head when I was cleaning the floors with Pine-Sol a couple of days before. I had never used Pine-Sol before and he was underfoot during this chore. When this occurred to me I read the label, which warned about dangers to domestic animals. Within a week, Paglia’s coat was thick and shiny again.
So, I had two visits to the vet within one year. Both concluded this was a healthy animal. He was not acting one iota differently than normal when I left on my Thanksgiving weekend trip.
I finally accepted something was seriously wrong when Dr. Zimmerman was taking his temperature and feeling his body and Paglia was just being tolerant and cooperative. No hissing, just listlessness. Dr. Zimmerman’s expression was utterly somber, her voice grave, as she pointed out the absence of pink coloration in his ears and gums and the crusty white film forming around his eyes and said this was irrefutable evidence that his system is not pumping blood.
She said that she would run some tests—x-ray and blood work. I said I can leave him overnight.
There is the possibility that his system has shut down, she continued. There is a possibility that we can’t help him here at the Jersey City office and that I would have to bring him to an animal hospital.
She lowered her voice. There is a possibility that you will have to consider euthanasia.
I gulp then ask how that works. They heavily sedate the animal, basically inducing a drug over dose. You’re in the room as your pet goes to sleep forever. He feels no pain as he dies. In retrospect, it was apparent that she recognized the signs and knew that a mercy killing was not just one possibility but the only fate for my cat.
There was no discussion of an overnight stay. She would run some tests and call me in an hour.
I went home and cleaned the bathroom; I was planning to do that anyway. I was nervous as hell and unable to think about anything else.
Dr. Zimmerman calls. I’m sorry Mr. Herrick, but I have to recommend Euthanasia.
I always thought it was weird how folks keep the ashes of their animal around. When it was offered though, I didn’t even hesitate when asked how I wanted the remains disposed. Yes! Ashes!
When I returned to the office, I brought an unopened bag and cans of the special CD cat food I buy at the vet’s office. They actually reimbursed me for this, although I said I just wanted it out of my apartment. I fed him both the dry and canned and always had two bags of the dry, one opened, and one unopened. I write the check, about $300, before I go in the back, the idea being that the bereaved can leave quickly and retain some dignified privacy after witnessing the lethal procedure. You always think about what if bad stuff happens, but when it does and you have to deal with the nuts and bolts of getting through it, the banality of each step always runs counter to how you’ve visualized the moment. In real life, drama usually requires paying attention to a series of dreary details and some paper work.
Paglia, wrapped in a green blanket, is on the metal table in one of the exam rooms. He is quiet, weak, scared. I let out a long sob.
At this point, I would have spent any amount and go through any sort of crazy thing to keep my pet alive.
I’m pleading. Can’t you just unblock him and see what happens, he was fine a week ago.
The best I can do is giving him a blood transfusion and he could last the night.
She shows me the X-ray. His entire colon is filled with feces: from the opening of the anus and all along his spine is one long, bumpy row of turds. His kidney has a tumor. She points to the grey outline of the kidney – a black spot fills half of the outline. There’s at least as much tumor as there is kidney.
Dr. Zimmerman explains that my cat is unable to urinate or defecate and that his kidney has shut down entirely.
I do not want Paglia to die, but I know the pain he is going through must be excruciating. No matter how horrible I feel at this moment, I cannot let my beloved pet suffer.
Knowing what to do does not make the doing any easier.
Dr. Zimmerman injects the sedative. I’m crying of course, telling Paglia how sorry I am, how much I love him. His paw taps my hand. He was such a good cat. I take out the St. Jude prayer card I keep in my wallet but I can’t read it very well because of the tears. I didn’t know what else to do.
Dr. Zimmerman touches my arm. It’s all right. He was a healthy cat. This is a long time for the cat to live. Fifteen, sixteen years. You took good care of him. You had the unblocking operation (crystals in the bladder) and he lived another ten years. I said that was in 1994 (or was it 1995). It was more than ten years.
And you know, when that thing went down the vet said I could put him to sleep. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I asked why his eyes weren’t closing. She said that doesn’t always happen. Paglia was absolutely still at this point. I gently push his eyelids shut, then cross myself. Gone. All that is left is a memory and a sorrow I will carry the rest of my days.
Days of grief follow. I’m sad every waking moment. I can’t sleep or eat very well. I went over to Mom’s and stayed overnight, just to get a good night’s sleep. It’s been hard in the apartment, impossible not to think about him. Paglia was always there watching me, sleeping, meowing for food or attention, a constant companion… I deeply miss his purr. I see him in my restless dreams.
I am not equating the loss of a pet with that of a human being, but it is grief nonetheless. Unlike losing a loved one or a family member, you’re entirely alone in that grief when your pet dies. When my father passed, at least my mom and siblings shared the grief. No one really has a relationship with your pet other than you. You alone feel the love, you alone suffer the loss, and that isolation intensifies the sadness. I received a lot of sympathy. People who care about me offered comfort, kind words and even understanding, but they were unable to give the healing empathy that only shared grief provides. Paglia was with me since he was a five-week old kitten. Friends and family bestow sincere condolences, but there’s just no consolation to be had.
You are completely alone, nothing really helps and the only thing you can do is endure your grief until it fades.
People tell me what Paglia went through is a common death for felines. At a certain age, a cat’s biological system just suddenly stops. The cat can be healthy, with the same behavior, mobility and appetite up until that random moment, when without warning, they rapidly decline.
One day they’re fine, the next day they’re not. And the next day they die.
I think I gave Paglia a quality cat life. He always had food and water, fresh litter every week. He didn’t have to worry about dogs or cars and had an entire couch to claw.
I miss him every day.
A week later, I go back to the veterinarian office. The receptionist gave me a wooden box about the size of a bible. Paglia is engraved on the small gold plaque on the side of the box. Inside, in a velvet sack, are Paglia’s ashes. The technician also gave me back the carrier.
I told her I wasn’t sure if I was going to get another cat. She looked at me and laughed. You’re getting another one. (I haven’t, but Paglia’s wooden box is on a shelf.)
I put the box of Paglia inside the carrier and we walked home together for the last time.
Copyright 2012 by Timothy Herrick